Citizen Cain't
You, too, can fail a civics test

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, December 21, 2008

Have you read about the new study from Beijing that reveals that Chinese people know nothing of their country's history? Seventy-two percent of adults could not even identify Gao Lishi, the second-most influential eunuch of the Tang Dynasty!

Okay, I didn't see that study either, because it doesn't exist. Never will. It takes an open, democratic society like ours to periodically release information disclosing that its citizens are idiots. This happened once again last month, when the results of a survey of 2,500 Americans demonstrated that we lack a basic understanding of our nation's history and institutions.

You are thinking: How dreadful! Well, that is because you are a member of the National Tsk Brigade, an unofficial, unpaid consortium of citizens whose job is to semi-regularly deplore the state of American education.

Me, I'm much more skeptical. For example, I researched this particular study, which turns out to require some pretty arcane academic knowledge. Why, for example, do we need to know the name of FDR's economic recovery program ("The Big Honkin' Deal") or be able to specify the three branches of government (the executive, the legislative and the Jews)?

I have created a much more relevant history and civics test for the modern American.

1. In the voting booth, you discover that some people you never heard of seem to be running for judge. Apparently, you missed that part of the news because the Redskins had unwisely failed to go into shotgun formation when the Giants were clearly showing blitz on third and long, so you needed to concentrate on the game. Now what?

A. Vote for the person with the most judgy-sounding name (example: "Charles Worthington Smith").

B. Vote for the person with the funniest name (example: "Hortense Prongblister").

C. If you cannot make an informed decision, you should not vote and resolve to better research the candidates next time.

Correct answer: To counteract the blitz, the Redskins should call an audible for a screen pass.

2. How does a bill become a law?

A. First, a man and a woman have to love each other very, very much.

B. The bill has to demonstrate a sincere desire to change.

C. A little cartoon drawing of a smiling piece of paper with arms and legs makes its way through cartoons of rooms labeled "subcommittee," "committee," "full Senate," etc., until the cartoon bill goes to a cartoon president, who signs it, and everyone shakes cartoon hands.

Correct answer: C is pretty close, actually, except it omits the part where the cartoon president adds a secret "signing statement" specifying that the law applies to everyone but him.

3. The United States Tax Code, Section IV, Subsection iii, Paragraph 9 stipulates that persons failing to submit completed Schedule C worksheets for the third fiscal quarter are subject to penalties up to but not exceeding one-twelfth of their second-quarter gross adjusted income, plus applicable fiduciary fees, levies and accruals.

A. Wait, was there a question here?

B. I am appalled.

C. Yes I said yes I will Yes.

Correct answer: Only Nebraska has a unicameral legislature.

4. During their political careers, which of the following individuals never functioned as president of the United States?

A. John Quincy Adams

B. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

C. Grover Cleveland's cat

D. George W. Bush

Correct answer: C and D.

5. Seven months ago, Carlos had $113,406.81 in his 401(k) retirement account. Today, there is enough money left in the account to purchase a bicycle. What should Carlos do?

A. Buy the bike now before it's too late.

Correct answer: A.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company